Quacks and charlatans: The scammers targeting Gaza's vulnerable patients
Many Gazans have sought help in recent months and years for physical or psychological ailments - and many of them have been physically or psychologically harmed by the experience of doing so.
Najah's family insisted she go to a "Quranic treatment centre" to find a solution to fertility issues she was experiencing.
She had her fears, however, remembering what happened to 17-year-old Israa Zoarob, killed in front of her parents and brother when a "healer" made her drink a litre of water mixed with half a kilogram of salt - to expel a jinn, or "spirit", that he said had possessed her.
"I went to a Quranic healer in the hope of getting pregnant," Najah told al-Araby. "He mumbled a bit and said some unintelligible things."
She said that he took her name and her mother's, lit some incense and burned something.
|He gave me a shock and told me there was a jinn inside me - but added it was a Muslim jinn, not as harmful as an evil jinn.
- Najah, fertility patient
"He then gave me a shock and told me there was a jinn inside me - but added it was a Muslim jinn, not as harmful as an evil jinn," she said.
"He tried to hit me to get the jinn out, but I left as fast as possible and since then I haven't gone back.
"I get scared every time someone talks about him, or healers like him."
Asmaa had a similar experience. Doctors appeared unable to cure her depression. She sought help from a so-called Quranic healer, who convinced her she was possessed by a jinn - and the only way to remove it was for him to cane her until she bled it out.
Asmaa's family were not allowed to visit her while she was being treated for the injuries she suffered during the beating, because the hospital staff had encouraged her to go to the healer.
The hospital tried to cover up Asmaa's bruises and burn marks, but she slipped further into a deeper depression. Eventually, they brought in a psychologist to treat her.
Women and healers
Al-Araby conducted a survey of 100 women in the Gaza Strip, and found that 60 percent of the people we talked to had gone to clinics to help solve problems including finding a husband, getting pregnant, solving marital and family disputes and curing depression.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights conducted a more scientific study, Health in the Gaza Strip: Reality and Aspirations, which revealed that "Quranic" and herbal treatments in the Gaza Strip are more popular than medical analysis or psychological counselling.
|Quranic healers can help with psychotherapy if they work under the supervision of a psychologist.
- Dr Sami Aweida
"A large proportion of Gazan women go to Quranic healers because women in eastern societies are more likely to respond to social beliefs that endorse these forms of treatment," said Dr Sami Aweida of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. "Also, mental health clinics are looked at negatively and considered disgraceful."
Aweida told al-Araby that people's understanding of mental health treatment differed.
"This is a natural phenomenon because there is no harm in turning to the Quran for help," she said. "Quranic healers can help with psychotherapy - if they do not use strange methods they claim are 'Quranic', and if they work under the supervision of a psychologist."
Salah Abd al-Atti is the head of the Independent Commission for Human Rights in Gaza. "According to government research, there are 163 'Quranic' treatment centres throughout the Gaza Strip," he said. "The majority are unlicensed and in residential homes."
|A first-hand experience
|"The Quranic healer said: 'Go buy a ticket from Abu Khamis' kiosk right there, then come back.'
"I bought the small piece of plastic with what looked like Chinese writing on it in a shop opposite the treatment centre for $1.50. I sat in the small waiting room in front of two doors. One was closed, the other was where the healer received her patients. It became clear during the 45 minutes I sat in the room she had a lot of patients.
"As I waited, a women went into the healer's room, and the strong smell of incense wafted through the whole place. I heard vomiting and the healer saying: 'Pretend it's a cigarette, put your finger in the back of your throat so you can throw up easier and empty your stomach.'
"Another woman in the waiting room told me how great the healer was and how she could solve marital problems and help women get pregnant. This healer was trustworthy because she had seen countless patients over the years, according to the woman. 'I've come this time because one of my relatives living abroad can't find work and is suffering from constant headaches,' she told me. She took a picture of her relative out of her bag and said: 'I'm sure she will help him out. I always come to her when I have troubles in my life.'
"My turn then came. I entered the small room. Inside, there was a run-down desk with a Quran in the middle. The scent of white incense lingered. The healer sat down behind the desk; her right hand was swollen and wrapped in blue bandages, the skin on her hand was almost as blue. She asked for my name and that of my mother's, then immediately said: 'You have constant headaches and bad dreams, the men you want to marry aren't interested in you. And the ones who want to marry you, you don't like.'
"Some of what she said was true, about the anxiety and bad dreams that made me feel a bit tense. She then wrote Quranic verses on a piece of paper and said to soak it in water and then drink it. She told me to drink a herbal brew five times a day, so that, come the next session, I could purge out all my issues troubling me."
These treatment centres are breaking article three of the Palestine Medical Practitioners Ordinance: "No one can practice medicine or pretend to practice medicine, directly or implicitly, or prepare to practice medicine unless they are authorised to do so."
Gaza's government is trying to prosecute anyone found to be involved in harming the public in these treatment centres, in accordance with Palestinian criminal law.
Gazan human rights organisations have warned people about the clinics.
"A rape in a treatment centre has been recorded, as have many incidents of women being horribly beaten resulting in hospital visits," said Salah Abd al-Atti.
"As a human rights organisation, we can't do anything, because no one has filed a complaint and most people who go to the centres do not want to file police reports - even if they have been harmed."
Even though many people have been harmed in such treatment centres, the government has very rarely prosecuted the "healers" responsible for vicious beatings. There has also been no official decision to require healers to obtain licenses from the government before plying their trade.
Dr Youssef Farhat is the head of preaching and guidance in the Ministry of Islamic Endowments. He said he was trying to regulate the centres with the help of the Gaza police, and to pass laws to criminalise quack medicine under the guise of religious treatment.
"It has come to our attention that immoral practices like sex and extortion were going on in a number of treatment centres," he said. "These centres were closed and the owners arrested."
Farhat warned Gazans against turning to healers calling themselves "Quranic healers".
"There are only a couple of trustworthy sheikhs, whose number can be counted on two hands."
The Gazan police have warned people about quack doctors, snake oil merchants, fortune tellers and religious healers.
"166 quack healers were arrested in Gaza in the first half of last year," North Gaza chief detective Ahmad al-Kariri told local radio on Tuesday. "Most of them were operating in north and central Gaza. People should avoid them at all costs."
This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.